Candidates for governor visit each other's home counties

Territory swap may indicate campaign strategies

May 18, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who grew up in Montgomery County, spent Tuesday in Baltimore County, the home of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — who was busy making inroads in Montgomery.

The same-day territory swap was a coincidence, but it also may provide insight into the gubernatorial candidates' perception of where they need to focus campaign resources. Democrat O'Malley and Republican Ehrlich face primary challengers but have commanding name-recognition across the state and appear headed toward a November rematch.

Both candidates made campaign announcement appearances in Montgomery and Baltimore counties, two of the most populous in the state. Although the two counties are majority-Democrat, together they account for nearly one-third of the state's 902,436 registered Republicans. More than twice as many Marylanders are registered Democrats.

Ehrlich's decisive Baltimore County win over Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002, by more than 20 percentage points, helped him become the state's first Republican governor in a generation. But four years later, O'Malley nearly erased Ehrlich's home-county advantage.

"It's clear that former Gov. Ehrlich is going to have a lot of trouble repeating his performance in 2002," said Rick Abbruzzese, O'Malley's campaign spokesman. He predicted Baltimore County residents will turn from Ehrlich because of his spending as governor.

Montgomery County is critical to the race, too, aides with both campaigns say. Despite its liberal reputation — and the fact that Democrats reign there — it holds the state's second-largest trove of Republican voters and its largest number of independents.

Ehrlich's Montgomery campaign manager, Katja Bullock, said the former governor, her friend, called her in the middle of the night with an assignment not long ago. "He said, 'No pressure, but you have to get me 42 percent,' " she recalled. "I just about fell out of bed."

In 2006, Ehrlich captured 37 percent of the county's vote, to O'Malley's 63 percent. Bullock has overcome the initial shock of Ehrlich's request and is now convinced. "We can do it," she said after a business roundtable Tuesday in Rockville. "I am going to get 42 percent for this man."

About three dozen business owners gathered around Ehrlich at Gordon Biersch, a restaurant in the town center. Acting as moderator was Mary D. Kane, a Potomac resident and U.S. Chamber of Commerce special projects director who is rumored to be on Ehrlich's short list for lieutenant governor. Several Republican candidates for the state legislature also attended.

Ehrlich repeated his campaign trail refrain that O'Malley's fiscal policies, such as a sales tax increase and the now-expired "millionaire's tax," are driving businesses out of state. He has pledged to roll back O'Malley's 1 percentage point increase of the sales tax.

His audience was receptive. Joseph A. Scolaro, a certified public accountant in Rockville, said, "Clients call me and ask, 'How can I legally leave this state?' " He said clients want to keep their Maryland ties but reside in states with lower income taxes and move their businesses — or part of their businesses — to states with lower corporate taxes.

Ehrlich also discussed transportation, a theme that resonates in the traffic-heavy area. He said he'd shelve plans for the purple line through Montgomery and the red line in Baltimore because the state can't afford those light rail projects. Instead, he would pursue a high-speed bus line plan he developed as governor and invest more state money in MARC commuter train and Washington Metro subway improvements.

The Rockville event followed a similar one in Bethesda, attended mostly by women who were business owners. Ehrlich said he feels comfortable in Montgomery, in part because he was co-chairman of a biotechnology subcommittee while a congressman.

"Yes, it is liberal," Ehrlich said of Montgomery, "but quality of life issues dominate."

Meanwhile, O'Malley spent his day in eastern Baltimore County, which he'd declared "capital for a day," an administration program that temporarily transplants state officials from Annapolis to other areas of the state. None of O'Malley's county appearances was an official campaign event, but he highlighted areas of his record that he hopes will lead him to re-election this fall.

In the morning, O'Malley toured Middle River Aircraft Systems, a General Electric subsidiary where more than 800 people work. Later at Gunpowder Falls State Park, he unveiled a state environmental report showing slight gains in the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

"We're always looking for any good news we can find about the bay," he said, noting that a great blue heron had just flown over the picnic pavilion where the event was being held amid a gentle rain.

O'Malley said in an interview after the bay event that Baltimore County residents have the same thing on their minds as all Marylanders: jobs. He also acknowledged that incumbents face tough re-election challenges now.

"I think the climate is rough because people are very anxious about keeping their homes, keeping their jobs, keeping their families whole," he said. "That's why jobs is the key issue in this campaign. The incumbency is the symptom of the economic pain, the job pain, that people are feeling."

O'Malley said it was simply coincidence that he was visiting Baltimore County on the same day Ehrlich was touring Montgomery. "We don't trade schedules,'' he said.

Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this report.

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